Eirene Mort: A Livelihood

Above: Wood and leather working tools c1920 belonging to Nora Weston, Mort Family Estate, photo RLDI
Right: Eirene Mort (right) and Nora Weston c.1905, Mort Family Estate, photo RLDI 
Below: Eirene Mort (1879-1977) Printing block and prints c.1900, Mort Family Estate, photo RLDI 
Bottom: Printing plate ‘S’ c.1903, courtesy Mort Family Estate, photo RLDI

Curator Dale Middleby discuss the work of Eirene Mort, an extraordinary woman. 

Imprint: Eirene Mort was an extraordinarily talented and active person – how do you curate a show with so many possible avenues of enquiry, and what did you decide to focus on?

 DM: I was really spoilt for choice, Mort mastered an astonishing range of skills during her first study tour to London (1899–1903), and in two further visits in 1912 and 1926. She expressed her considerable skills in a wide range of media, and in addition was an inventor, a writer and a family historian. She practised interior design and occupational therapy before such professions were recognised. Add to these her role as a teacher and her prominence in numerous arts societies, and a picture emerges of an entrepreneur, a high achiever and an astute social observer.

The exhibition aims to explore the lived experience of a woman artist and artisan practising in the first decades of last century. As the title, Eirene Mort: a livelihood suggests, the exhibition reveals how Mort made a living from her art practice and teaching in the early years of the 20th Century. My curatorial decisions and object selections were based on how best to inform this overarching theme. As a consequence, Mort’s early influences, her training, and her personal and professional networks are subthemes that run as a biographical narrative throughout the exhibition.


Imprint: What is the history behind CMAG coming to have such a wonderful endowment of Eirene Mort’s art practice?

DM: Since opening in 1998 CMAG has acquired examples of Mort’s work and featured her etchings in a number of exhibitions.  Seeking permission from the Canberra branch of the Mort family to use and reproduce her work for such exhibitions fostered a fine rapport. It was very gratifying therefore in 2013 when Mort’s heirs offered to donate material to CMAG that related to her art practice. Their offer was accepted and the material is now a prized part of CMAG’s permanent collection; a generous gift from the estate of Eirene’s niece, Margaret Mort MBE.

Imprint: How did Mort contribute to issues around national identity in Australia?

 DM: Mort was in London studying art teaching and design when the Australian states federated and shaping a new national identity was foremost in the minds of public figures. Mort was particularly taken by the English Arts and Crafts Movement and when she returned to Australia applied its principles and her designer’s eye to Australian flora and fauna. Mort’s extensive use of Australian species in her work engendered pride in the unique flora and fauna of Australia.

In 1903 Mort made a less positive contribution to the burgeoning national identity in her design for a set of children’s alphabet blocks. An Aboriginal man stands for the letter ‘A’ in Mort’s ‘Australian Animal Alphabet’. Such racial prejudice was commonplace among non-indigenous Australians at the time and shows Mort held views that were typical of a privileged, middle-class woman of that time.

Imprint: What are some of the highlights among Mort’s print-related work and interests?  

DM: Mort’s bookplates and their associated etching plates, pen drawings, woodblocks and printer’s proofs are highlights of the exhibition. In 1908 Mort became member of the Ex Libris Society and actively pursued the society’s goal of promoting exchange among artists. A sample of her vast personal collection is on show and includes the work of Lionel Lindsay and Margaret Oppen. In a letter dated 1947 from fellow bookplate collector Gianni Mantero, Mort is asked to list the best Australian bookplate artists. She replies that it is “a very delicate question to ask a bookplate designer” but lists “a few of the best” including Adrian Feint, Allan Jordan, Eric Thake, GD Perrottet, P Litchfield,  Roy Davis, and Hilda Wiseman(NZ). Also on display is a checklist booklet which details eighty-eight of Mort’s designs made from 1907-1943.


Imprint: How is the exhibition organised in terms of the way a visitor might experience it?

DM: This exhibition begins with one of Eirene Mort’s (1879–1977) most important projects; her mission to record Canberra’s heritage. Mort had developed a fondness for the region when, as a child, she visited her Campbell relations at Duntroon and her Crace relations at Gungahlin. Knowing that the Canberra region was about to change because of its new status as the national capital, Mort compiled a portfolio of drawings and etchings of the Canberra district of the 1920s.

Following this module is an intense display demonstrating the many skills she employed to support herself. It includes examples of book binding, book illustrations, bookplates, calendars, ceramics, children’s books and toys, Christmas cards, dadoes, decorative panels, d’oyleys, ecclesiastical designs, etchings, gift cards,  illuminated addresses, inlaid wood designs, leatherwork, linocuts, magazine covers, mirror frames, prints, postcards, posters,  pyrography, repoussé work, sketches, stencilled borders, tablecloths, tapestries, wallets, wallpaper designs, watercolours, woodcarving designs and woodcuts. A detailed biography follows that examines Mort’s life through her creative legacy and social milieu.

Eirene Mort: A Livelihood  is at Canberra Museum + Art GAllery until 25 February